Rev. Dr. Gordon Moyes - The Reason Behind Our UnitingLaunch of the Tongan Assembly of Confessing Congregations.
Auburn NSW. 14th July 2007.
Scripture: John 17: 20- 26. (GNB)
© REV THE HON. DR. GORDON MOYES, A.C., M.L.C.,
B.A., LL.D., Litt.D., D.D.,
F.R.G.S., F.A.I.M., F.A.I.C.D., M.A.C.E..
‘THE UNITING CHURCH IN AUSTRALIA: The First Twenty-Five Years.” Susan and William W Emilsen. Circa Melbourne 2003.
I grew up in an era that took Church union seriously. Throughout the twentieth century many denominations planned to unite. By 1980, 137 denominations had united into 39 denominations found in six continents, with a further 123 denominations negotiating in 29 countries on six continents.
However optimistic the 1960's and 1970's were, the 1980's on have seen a worldwide slowdown in church union. If the union of the three denominations to form our church had not occurred by the end of the 1977 I doubt if it would now occur. Furthermore, the experience of union was so traumatic, that any further union in this country between our denomination and the three others close to us, has been shelved to the next century.
Sociologists like Dr Robert Guthrie explain that the union was painful because it was initiated by theologians and administrators who were not the people to implement the policy in the parishes. Union came and did not allow local structures to emerge gradually from a process of socialisation. Only now, thirty years after the union, are members in many areas completing the socialisation process. I did not drift into the Uniting Church because of my parents’ choice or any accident of growing up. I chose the Uniting Church in Australia.
Thirty years ago I thought the choice of this name was nothing short of inspired because the word "Uniting" was in the present continuous tense. We were not a united church like "The United Church of Canada", or "The United Church of North India", the past tense that spoke presumptuously of something already accomplished.
We are "Uniting", not already "united". We came from different traditions: Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational. Two other denominations were officially observers to the formation of Union, but they voted not to join: the Anglicans and the Churches of Christ. Had they done so, it would have been a stronger union. With greater numbers of evangelical members and greater choice of leadership and that could have saved the Uniting Church from the pain of the past two decades.
But I recognise that the process of Union was so painful that no other such Union is likely to occur. More socialisation must take place before we can move from "uniting" to "united" even in this one denomination. The unpleasant fact is that more are leaving us than those deciding to join us, and among those who remain there is great unhappiness which has led to the formation of the Assembly of Confessing Congregations, an attempt to stay within the Uniting Church while declaring our commitment to the Scriptures and our opposition to the direction that the UCA leaders have been taking us. The main motivation towards us uniting in the first place is of prime importance. It is this reason that keeps us within the Uniting Church in Australia, although our beliefs and protests have been trampled or ignored.
In the beginning, many saw sense in uniting people of similar beliefs. Others saw economic sense of rationalising properties. That has become a painful issue as denominational bean-counters look with envy upon local churches and try to make small congregations close down to give them the assets.
Others saw a powerful witness to the community in Christians demonstrating that they really were one by their worshipping together. That hope blew up in our face when parts of the church took other parts of the church to court to settle property disputes and schools and hospitals decided they wanted their autonomy and property rather than be part of the union and significant numbers voted to remain separate from the union.
Large numbers left to join other denominations. The Pentecostal churches now include in their numbers tens of thousands of former Uniting Church members. The move away from the Uniting Church still continues. These Churches, now called the Australian Christian Churches, have passed the Uniting Church and have moved to be the third largest denomination in Australia after the Catholic and Anglican Churches. Our moves to union made us a laughing stock with many.
The 2007 Census reveals that over the past ten years, the UCA has decreased by 15% from 1.3 million to 1.1 million, a loss of over a quarter of a million adherents in just 10 years. In Tasmania, the Uniting Church has lost in 10 years 23% of it total adherents. Over the past thirty years this loss is staggering with the Uniting Church losing three quarters of a million adherents! This includes losing almost a whole generation of young adults. If this loss rate continues, considering the average age of UCA membership (over 66 years now) the UCA will go out of existence altogether within the next twenty years! Yet some Assembly leaders deny our membership is in a disastrous decline. They persist with policies that every week loses us members and adherents. The Assembly of Confessing Congregations is an attempt to stem that haemorrhage.
But our original motivation for uniting was neither pragmatic nor economic. It was theological. If we could only recover that original commitment there may be some hope even yet for the Uniting Church in Australia. We were convinced thirty years ago that in uniting we were obeying the expressed will of Christ, recorded in scripture and basically ignored over 2000 years of division among Christians. We became a Uniting Church because it is His will.
If you could overhear the secret prayer of someone who dearly cares for you, would not that make a difference to how you live? We overhear Jesus praying for us and in His prayer was a passionate plea that His followers should come together and stay together. Jesus devoted Himself to prayer. When Jesus faced the final crisis in His life during those events that lead to His death, Jesus prayed. He prayed alone. He prayed with His disciples. He prayed in the Upper Room. He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. He prayed on the Cross.
That is just where we are different. We would pray when the situation was hopeless, but before then we would act instead. We would have argued with Judas to stop his betrayal. We would have motivated the disciples to arouse popular support. We would have confronted the High Priest Caiaphas in His office and argued. We activists would have issued press statements, organised protests, demanded political action, built up public opinion, worked on the differences between the Jewish and the Roman law and caused confusion and chaos so as to block the progress to the Cross. But Jesus prayed.
He discovered through His prayers a way of redemption and positive achievement, whereas we moderns would have collapsed through exhaustion and despair. We do not understand that prayer is also potent opposition. "More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of", as Tennyson said.
We moderns would have tried to avoid the Cross. But Jesus went into an olive orchard and prayed. That prayer is the greatest in history. John 17 is one of the most precious chapters in the Bible, because it is the anguished prayer of our Lord, overheard by John who was also praying nearby. Here is a remarkable record, the last prayer of the best man who had ever lived, overheard in the stillness of the dark.
Like the Lord's Prayer there is a pattern, for He starts with God and His concerns, then for His own concerns, and finally, His intercessions for others. He speaks of God as "Father" (v1), then "Holy Father" (v11), then "righteous Father" (v25) in three concentric circles of concerns, each wider than the one before. The first circle of concern is with Jesus Himself; the second is with His friends and followers; and the third is with those who will believe in Him through the witness of the disciples. What was it that Jesus asked from the Father for us who believe in Him through the disciples' witness?
1. IN A SEGREGATED WORLD JESUS PRAYS FOR OUR UNITY.
Our world is divided by race, religion, colour, class, creed, status, sex, economic circumstance, disability, age, employment, social standing, family ties, town of origin, and place of education and so on. Australians like to think we are all mates.
With no barriers against anyone. But scratch us and old antagonisms, prejudices, snobberies and divisions come out. Jesus prays that in a segregated society the church may be one. The church must be one place where rich and poor, black and white, brown and yellow, educated and ignorant, male and female, ethnic and caucasian, migrant and aboriginal, young and old, may be found both in congregations and in leadership.
Jesus in his last hours prays: "I do not pray only for them, but also for those who believe in Me because of their message. I pray that they may all be one." John 17:20 We usually take this to mean that Christians should be united instead of denominationally divided.
But Jesus is not advocating some ecclesiastical carpentry tacking one denomination onto another. Nor is He talking of a union based upon compromise where beliefs do not matter. Nor is He talking about a marriage of convenience between churches with falling memberships. "Being one" is a spiritual conviction that binds us together over all worldly segregations that divide. Jesus prays that in a world of segregation we might be one.
2. IN A SINFUL WORLD JESUS PRAYS FOR OUR HOLINESS.
"Father. May they be in us, just as you are in me and I am in you." v21 That is the nature of our unity together, a unity of spiritual conviction, harmony, and integration like that of the Father and the Son. They possessed separate identities, yet one nature, separate functions yet one purpose. It is that spiritual oneness which holds us together in a world that is falling apart.
It is that spiritual nature which holds us in holiness into a world that is sunk in sinfulness. In this prayer, Jesus uses two phrases: "in the world" and "in the Father". Jesus had been "in the world" but as the Cross approaches, He leaves the world to be wholly identified "in the Father": "And now I am coming to you; I am no longer in the world." v11
Christians live in the world, but our destiny lies in our Father. Here is great insight on how we must live. At this stage in our spiritual progress, like Jesus during His time in Jerusalem, we live in the world, yet we shall live in the Father. To live in the world means to live in a society that is apart from God. It is the world that is perishing as opposed to the world of God that abides forever. It is the natural order of humanistic man, where man is the measure of all things, and where our hedonistic satisfaction is the chief purpose of life.
It is the secular society that has no room for God. Yet God so loved this world that He sent His only Son into the world to redeem it. Those of us who have been redeemed now live in the world, but we live in God who transcends this world. We are in this world but our destiny is not here.
Jesus never tried to escape the sinful world in which He lived. He ate with tax collectors and prostitutes, forgave adulterers, enjoyed wedding feasts and died between two thieves.
He was in the world, totally involved with sinners. He said, "I am come to call sinners to repentance." We know only too well that like Jesus we live in the world where every temptation makes holy living difficult for us. We acknowledge He calls us in our sinfulness.
Yet He was not of the world. He lived a life of transparent holiness. No one could accuse Him of any sin. He was utterly untouched by any scandal. His enemies were silenced by His purity of thought and deed, even upon the Cross. He was in the world but not of the world. So are we who believe in Him. Herein lays our method of opposition.
The Uniting Church allowed itself to be too influenced by the moral standards of this world. That is why I strongly urged the Church to stand down a moderator and a General Secretary of Synod who were committing adultery and those in homosexual and lesbian relationships who were leaders of the church. Jesus prayed that we would live in holiness.
Nothing can so shame dirt as cleanliness, nor put darkness to flight better than light. So He prays for His disciples: "Holy Father! I gave them your message and the world hated them, because they do not belong to the world just as I do not belong to the world. I do not ask you to take them out of the world, but I do ask you to keep them safe from the Evil One. Just as I do not belong to the world, they do not belong to the world. Dedicate them, to yourself by means of the truth; your Word is truth." v14 17
As He prayed for His disciples so He prays for us, that we will be kept in holy living. Christians appear as others but are different by the holiness of our living.
That is fundamentally why we as members of the Assembly of Confessing Congregations cannot accept as leaders in the church people who defiantly live in same sex relations and who practise immorality.
These leaders do not listen to the membership of the Church. A petition demanding the rescinding of an unacceptable Assembly motion was presented to the Assembly Standing Committee. 24,000 Uniting Church members from over 500 congregations signed the petition, which was delivered in 16 volumes.
Thousands of letters and notes expressed the deep spiritual and emotional dismay and concern of Uniting Church members and adherents following the Assembly's decision.
UCA leaders believed the concept of "homosexuality is O.K. if you happen to live in right relationships instead of being celibate if you are single and faithful if you are married.” But that is not acceptable Christian practice in the light of clear Biblical teaching.
The members of the UCA believe that the Assembly of the Uniting Church have placed themselves outside the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, in contravention of paragraph 2 of their Basis of Union. They also are appalled that the proposal was not referred back to other Councils of the Church as the Assembly is obliged to do where a matter is “of vital importance to the life of the Church.” The President was clearly in error in making a ruling that the matter was not of vital importance to the Church. The Assembly of Confessing Congregations cannot accept the standards of the world. They can only accept the standards of personal holiness in conformity to scriptural standards.
3. IN A SCEPTICAL WORLD JESUS PRAYS FOR OUR WITNESS.
So many are aimless, but Christians live with the purpose to shine as light in the darkness so that others will reach for the light themselves. The world is self centred. The Christian is other centred, not turning from sinners, but seeking to win sinners to Christ. No evasion from the world, but evangelism in the world. As Jesus prayed: "I send them into the world, just as you sent me into the world. And for their sake I dedicate myself to you, in order that they too may be truly dedicated to you." 19
Jesus prays: "I pray not only for them, but also for those who believe in me because of their message. I pray that they may all be one. Father! May they be in us, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they be one, so that the world will believe that you sent me." 21 Evangelism is the primary task of the church and what Christ made primary we dare not make secondary.
The church is only the church when it is in mission, seeking to win people to Jesus. Every member should be united with each other believer in Christ, living a life of holiness, being kept safe from the Evil One, so that the world might believe that God sent Jesus Christ to redeem the world.
Jesus prays for our witness, that the world might believe. We speak of His coming to save the world, to redeem people from the penalty of sin, to reconcile people alienated from their God, to tell the Good News that by Christ's death upon the Cross, our sins are forgiven, death has been conquered, and we have been given the gift of eternal life. All this can be appropriated to your life, if you believe in Jesus and trust in His redeeming love.
We call upon the Uniting Church to unite together in a fresh and exciting thrust into national witness to Jesus Christ. Our denomination is silent and invisible to most Australians. Only a fresh witness to Jesus Christ can make the difference.
Let me ask you: Do you believe that "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life?" To respond "YES" is to enter His Kingdom, to be in the world but no longer of it, to be in the light rather than in the darkness, to be one with the Father and the Son and with those who believe in Him, to be committed to holiness of living by the study of His word, and to be a witness to His truth that others may also believe.
This prayer of Jesus is the greatest in all history. It was prayed for His disciples, and as well for you whom he calls "those who believe in Me because of their message." Have you heard His prayer for you? Have you believed? His prayer is the reason we call ourselves "uniting", for in a segregated world Jesus prays for our unity. His prayer is the reason that we emphasise a Christian life style, for in a sinful world Jesus prays for our holiness. His prayer is the reason that we preach the Gospel, for in a sceptical world Jesus prays for our witness. Will you seek to be one with us? Will you commit yourself to holy living? Will you respond to the Gospel message now?